They are climbing the superfood sales charts elsewhere and claims of their health benefits are spreading, but in Australia hemp seeds remain under a cloud.
It is one of the few countries in the world where a question mark hangs over their legality. Despite no evidence that consumers can get high from the cannabis plant derivative, there are bans in place.
A Food Standards Australia New Zealand investigation concluded that “hemp does not have any psychoactive properties”. It said it didn’t identify any safety concerns about consumption and that hemp seeds were a nutritious food containing sizeable amounts of protein, polyunsaturated fats and dietary fibre.
Yet a Melbourne restaurant that regularly serves dishes containing hemp seeds could be pursued by the Health Department if its identity was disclosed.
As cannabis is a prohibited substance under the Food Act, it is illegal to sell hemp seeds, or hemp seed oil, as food. The fine is $40,000 for an individual and $200,000 for a corporation. A Health Department spokesman said it would follow up a complaint if one were made and that there are no exemptions.
But a restaurateur who serves hemp smoothies and hemp seed chocolate fudge said she was unaware she was committing an offence. She said she relied on information from her hemp seed supplier.
Confusion about the law stems in part from its wording. While it is not permitted to sell hemp seeds as food, it is legal to sell them as something else. This is how outlets other than restaurants tiptoe around the rules.
Packaged hemp seeds are readily available in shops, with trade occurring on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis.
Retailers promote and sell them as a facial scrub ingredient, for instance, while well aware of customers’ unspoken intentions to sprinkle them on salads and cereals.
“We are very diplomatic,” stockist Francesca Boch, from Great Earth Super Discount Health Shop, said.
“Nobody buys them for anything but food,” another retailer said.
This raises a question: is it legal to eat them if you have a few left over from the facial scrub? Inquiries suggest the bans relate to the sale of hemp seeds, not the ownership. Food Standards Australia New Zealand says it is legal to possess hemp seeds as food.
A ministerial review of the law was due to conclude last week, but is now expected to go on until later in the year. The last review, in 2002, rejected overturning the ban partly because it could send a confused message to consumers about the safety of cannabis and could complicate law enforcement drug testing.